A customer once taught me an important lesson about empowerment.
I was a national account manager for a uniform company that sold hats, jackets, shirts and items embroidered or screen printed with a company's logo. My customer was frustrated by a two-week wait for a product sample. In my inexperience, I meekly tried to explain the limits of our process. I'll never forget his retort:
"Isn't that what they pay you for? Sometimes, you've gotta bend the rules."
He was right. I managed to get the customer's sample order out in three days rather than two weeks. It took a lot of effort, and I bent a lot of rules, but he was happy.
I blamed our strict policies and procedures for making things so difficult.
Years later, I discovered a hidden secret to improving employee empowerment. Counterintuitively, it's having strict processes. It turns out the ones we had at the uniform company just weren't the right ones.
The Definition of Empowerment
When I researched customer-focused companies for The Service Culture Handbook, I was surprised to learn that leaders at elite companies had a different view of empowerment.
You can read a more detailed explanation, but here's a quick summary:
Empowerment really means enabling employees to provide outstanding customer service. There are three elements required:
Resources: good products, services, tools, etc.
Process: a consistent way of doing things right.
Authority: the ability to bend the rules when needed.
We had pretty good products and I had a lot of authority at the uniform company. It was our processes that stunk. Following the standard processes resulted in longer leader times and more shipping errors. Following our pricing policy led to higher prices. All of those were a recipe for angry customers.
Why a Strict Process is Essential
Quality was a real problem at the uniform company.
We'd often ship the wrong item, embroider the wrong logo, or fail to detect a damaged item. Customers already frustrated by long lead times would go through the roof when their shipment arrived and it wasn't quite right.
I had the authority to hold any order until I personally inspected it. This allowed me to catch errors before they shipped out.
The inspection process added a day to the already long lead time. And when I did catch a problem, I could have the problem fixed (adding to the lead time), but I was rarely able to address the root cause of the issue.
It would have been so much better if I could have trusted that my customers' orders ship out correct and on time. That was the missing piece that would have enabled me to spend more time proactively addressing customer needs rather than just playing defense and trying to prevent errors.
Strict, reliable processes are essential to empowerment.
Amazon is able to ship products from its warehouses at blazing speed with fantastic accuracy because of a tightly choreographed fulfillment system. Each step is carefully documented and monitored.
Do Amazon employees have the authority to deviate from the process?
Yes, but only if there's a reason. For example, when I toured an Amazon fulfillment center, I saw employees shut down a shipping line when they detected an error and needed to identify the root cause.
Tinker to Constantly Improve
My biggest account at the uniform company was an anomaly.
A competitor held a master contract with the corporate office, so I had to target the customer's individual locations. Rather than selling a thousand uniform shirts at a time, my average order from this customer was about ten items.
Our factory's smallest embroidery machine could put a logo on six garments at a time. So the factory set a minimum order size of six items with the same logo in an effort to run more efficiently. A lot of orders from my big client had fewer than six embroidered items, which caused us to lose business.
I organized a meeting with production leaders to find a solution. We worked out a plan to group orders from this customer together so it was easier to meet the minimum.
Here's what would happen:
Location A might order two shirts on Monday
Location B might order one shirt on Tuesday
Location C might order three shirts on Thursday
By Thursday, I had enough shirts to meet the six item minimum, so the production team would start the orders for locations A, B, and C at the same time.
This might delay the orders for locations A and B by couple of days, but it was better than refusing the business altogether. And I learned that I could earn some goodwill by telling the customer I found a way around our six item minimum.
There was just one snag in the plan. A different embroidery pattern was required for different types of materials and fabric weaves. So if location A ordered two cotton oxford shirts, location B ordered a polyester work shirt, and location C ordered three poly-cotton blend polo shirts, I'd actually need three different embroidery patterns.
That put me back to square one since the embroidery machines could only follow one pattern at a time.
The solution was experimenting to find more universal embroidery patterns that would look great on multiple fabric and weave types. Cutting down the number of different patterns required made it easier to meet the minimum of six items with the same logo.
Customer-focused companies constantly tinker with processes.
Southwest Airlines provides a great example. It experimented for years with different boarding processes until it arrived at the system it uses today. Customers are assigned a boarding group (A, B, or C) at check-in along with a number that tells them when to board. So the passenger with A31 on their boarding pass will board right after the passenger with A30. The process allows Southwest to board its planes very quickly with minimal passenger confusion.
That doesn't mean Southwest is done tinkering. The airline is currently testing boarding planes through both the front and rear doors.
I was ultimately laid off from my job at the uniform company.
All those broken processes finally caught up to us. Competitors were able to ship orders faster, with fewer errors, at lower prices. My department was eliminated in a cost-cutting reorganization effort.
One thing that doomed us was we didn't have a process for fixing repeated problems. I'd share feedback with my boss and he'd just shrug and say there's nothing we could do.
Getting laid off turned out to be fantastic for my career. I got a job as a contact center training supervisor. My new boss, Debbi, was a mentor who helped me grow my training and leadership skills. One thing Debbi encouraged me to do was work with my team to develop really good processes.
You can find more information about empowerment on this resource page.